Designing a Real Life Ecosystem!

By Chrisovalantis Gailas, November 1, 2006

Grade Level

  • High School


  • Other

Subject Area

  • Science

Lesson Time

Four fifty-minute class periods, plus periodic checkpoints and data recordings


An ecosystem is a collection of organisms living in an area and their nonliving surroundings. There are many biotic factors (living things) and abiotic (non-living) factors that affect a species’ survival. Each organism has a habitat and niche (role/function), and if they are harmed or interfered with, an organism’s chance of survival is placed in jeopardy. An organism’s ability to survive and reproduce successfully (natural selection) is the basis behind the concept of evolution. In this lesson, students will build their own model of a miniature ecosystem, observing an organism’s daily actions and comfort.  Students will build this model of an ecosystem in a 20-gallon aquarium tank.

National Standards

Science (Level IV)
Content Standard A A1: Abilities necessary to do science inquiry
A2: Understanding about science inquiry
Content Standard E
E1: Abilities of technological design
Content Standard F
F1: Personal & Community Health
F2: Population Growth
F3: Natural Resources
F4: Environmental Quality
F4: Nature and Human Induced Hazards
Content Standard G
Nature of Scientific Knowledge

Common Core Standards

Anchors for Reading:

Key Ideas and Details:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.1 Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.R.2 Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Anchor Standards for Writing:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.2 Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.3 Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details and well-structured event sequences.

Production and Distribution of Writing:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.7 Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.9 Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Range of Writing:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.W.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Anchor standards for Speaking and Listening:

Comprehension and Collaboration:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.1 Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.2 Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas: 

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.SL.6 Adapt speech to a variety of contexts and communicative tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate.

Anchor standards for Language:

Conventions of Standard English:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.1 Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.


Students will be able to:
  • understand abiotic and biotic factors
  • understand the concept of an ecosystem
  • understand competition and natural selection
  • record and analyze data
  • write a lab report in proper, scientific format
  • use thinking and analytical skills
  • work as a cooperative team


  • research books
  • Internet


  • 20-gallon aquariums for students to build their ecosystem
  • soil, leaves, twigs, plants, rocks, water or other materials for students to build their ecosystem floor plan
  • small animals which will be assigned to students to place in the ecosystem (such as mouse, hamsters, grasshoppers, frogs, hermit crab)
  • animals to be placed in all aquariums as cohabitants (ants, spiders, worms)
  • enough space in a lab for students to display their aquariums (near windows if necessary) or lamps if windows are not available for light/heat


This lesson should be implemented after the unit on Ecology. However, a minor introduction to evolution and natural selection should also be reviewed.Students should have an understanding of the following terms:
  • Ecosystem
  • Biotic & Abiotic Factors
  • Natural Selection
  • Competition
  • Fitness
  • Niche & Habitat
  • Energy Flow in an ecosystem / Feeding relationships
  • Nutrient Limitation
  • Community Interactions


1) Review the aforementioned terms and concepts prior to introducing this activity.
2) Students will be divided into groups of four. It is a collaborative effort and everybody should have an equal share of the responsibility.
3) Each group will be assigned an animal chosen by the teacher (mouse, hamster, grasshopper or frog).
4) Each group will be responsible for researching its organism’s niche, habitat, competitors, and other means of survival. This research report/paper should be handed in for the teacher to review. Students should meet and research this together at the library.
5) After reports are reviewed, instruct the students that they have to build a model of an ecosystem in which their assigned organism could live (based on their research). Remind students that they will have to build an ecosystem which will include other organisms.
*Students should be aware of the organism’s niche, habitat, competitors, and other biotic and abiotic factors which could harm or benefit its survival rate.
6) Students will draw and design a comprehensive plan (blueprint) of their ecosystem on paper after they are given the dimensions of their aquarium. They should keep the following criteria in mind:
  • The aquarium will not receive outside interference from the group for one week!
  • After one week, the students can add food into the aquarium twice a week if they deem it necessary.
  • Students must factor in that both day-time and night-time lighting conditions should be simulated.
  • Students should keep their research and their lessons in class in mind when building their ecosystem!
ALSO, the following questions should be kept in mind:
  • What will be the base of the aquarium: soil, rocks, or wood?
  • How much of the base will be placed on the floor of the aquarium?
  • Will there be any lakes in the aquarium? How will the lakes be constructed? How big will the lakes be?
  • Will there be any plant life in the aquarium? A floor plan of where the plants will be located and how they will look should be included.
  • Where will the organism live?
  • What food will the organism eat?
  • How will the organism deal with competitors?
  • What elements will the organism need to survive (heat, shade, etc).
*Teacher could provide an example which will not be too extensive /comprehensive to allow students to come up with their own ideas. 7) Allow two days for students to construct this blueprint in class. 8) After reviewing and accepting blueprint, allow students to build their ecosystem in class. Allow three periods for the building with teacher supervision. *Prior to commencing building, it is VERY IMPORTANT that the students review safety procedures AND appropriate means of handling living organisms. 9) Students should keep a daily log in a separate notebook of their organism’s actions at least three times a day (before first period, during lunch and after school) for one month. Students should record information such as:
  • What is the organism doing?
  • Is the organism eating?
  • Where is it?
  • Is there any change in the environment?
  • How is it interacting with the other organisms?
  • Any other observations which they find important or interesting.
*Show students the format to record this daily information. *Also, students should record what they add twice a week after the first week. They should also record the time and date of when things were added. *The blueprint and students’ research of the organism should be included in this notebook.


Students should be able to answer the following questions based upon their aquarium:1) How does your model simulate an ecosystem?2) What abiotic and biotic factors are in your ecosystem?3) What is your organism’s habitat and how did you try to simulate it in your ecosystem? 4) What is your organism’s niche and how did you try to simulate it in your ecosystem? 5) Is your organism a producer, herbivore, carnivore, and omnivore, or a decomposer? 6) Are there any food chains simulated in your ecosystem? 7) Did photosynthesis play a role in your ecosystem? 8) Were there any community interactions between your organism and the other organisms? 9) Did your organism compete with the other organisms? Show evidence from your log to explain your answer 10) Did your organism live comfortably in your ecosystem or not? Show evidence from your log to explain your answer? 11) When did you have to add materials to the aquarium twice a week after the first week? Why did you think this was necessary at this time? Explain your answer using your observations in your log. 12) Why did you add any additional content in your aquarium (if you added any)? 13) Did your organisms survive? How did your organism survive? Make sure you use the concept of natural selection in your explanation.

Enrichment Extension Activities

Students can build a model of how an ecosystem or community was back in history at a certain time and place. This can be used to show the survival of a society at a certain time of history.

  1. I will be using this lesson plan this year for my Biology Class. Thank you. I will be adapting this lesson to mini-ecosystems. Students pairs will be assigned an organism to design for. They will research that organism’s natural habitat, research the ecological relationships that exist in that habitat, use this research to define their user-need statement, brainstorm ideas for the mini-habitat (biotic and abiotic factors, construction materials), then they will sketch or build a low-resolution prototype. After presenting their low-resolution prototype, students can test by making the ecosystem, placing the organism into it, then recording observations for the time-frame suggested in the lesson above.

    Cool Beans!

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